You could say that Oakland’s Museum of Art and Digital Entertainment was born in a cabbage patch.
About 15 years ago, the museum’s founder, a video game enthusiast and tech journalist named Alex Handy, stumbled upon a truly rare find at Oakland’s Laney College Flea Market—an unreleased version of Cabbage Patch Kids: Adventures in the Park for the Atari 2600 home gaming console.
Many would have looked right past the obscure piece of video game history. Instead, Handy built an entire museum around it.
A decade-and-a-half later, Handy and the rest of the team at “the MADE” are the stewards of the Bay Area’s only all-playable video game museum.
Today, the MADE is one of the few places in the world where people can play titles like Cabbage Patch Kids on platforms like the Atari 2600. While other preservationists have managed to keep systems like the 2600—which was first released in 1977—in working order, they are often tucked away behind protective panels of glass.
But at the MADE, these early relics of the video game industry —along with more contemporary titles, like Super Smash Bros., Crazy Taxi, The Legend of Zelda and Halo—continue to live out their original purpose. Any visitor to the museum in Oakland can toy with and learn from these increasingly rare pieces of hardware, gaining insights into the early days of what is now a multibillion-dollar industry and catching a glimpse of the origins of Silicon Valley.
“We don't think that it's enough just to preserve the artifacts. We believe that the artifacts should be used for something, which is to inspire the next generation,” said Shem Nguyen, the MADE’s executive director. “And we can't do that if they're sitting behind glass.”
Players can jam on the drums of an early 2000s Rock Band title or go back even further in time to play a 1970s competitor's version of Atari's Pong. It’s all part of the museum’s mission to keep these digital pieces of entertainment activated for future generations. In that spirit, the museum also offers free classes that teach students skills in computer programming and game design.
While the primarily volunteer-run MADE managed to stay afloat for years on a shoestring budget and the donations of supporters, it was almost game over for the museum once Covid struck in 2020. However, the MADE survived the pandemic and continues its mission of keeping video games in a state of play.
After stumbling upon that collection of Cabbage Patch Kids games, Handy looked to donate the items to an institution that could preserve this obscure piece of digital entertainment.
But the Strong National Museum of Play in Rochester, New York was too far and Stanford’s extensive collection of interactive software lives in an academic ivory tower.
So Handy decided to start his own nonprofit museum to save video games like Atari’s unreleased Cabbage Patch Kids from collecting dust in forgotten boxes or going to the junkyard.
“The history of this industry is in people's garages. It's not inside of glass skyscrapers,” Handy said. “So initially we saw ourselves almost as a grease trap for the industry to just save the stuff, stop it from being destroyed.”
But there was a debate going on in the gaming community. Should these historic games continue to be played, or should they be pristinely preserved? Handy was clear about where he stands.
“If you don't let people play this stuff, it's not a video game museum,” he said “It's an art museum with the lights turned off.”
Preservationists had a hard time wrapping their minds around the concept of an all-playable video game museum, but Kickstarter got it—and with $20,000 of seed funding raised from the crowdfunding platform, Handy leased the MADE’s first home at 16th and Jefferson streets in Oakland in 2011.
With the help of volunteers, the museum also began offering classes in everything from computer programming and project management to figure drawing and game design. The classes became integral to the MADE’s mission to make education and Silicon Valley’s professional opportunities and resources accessible to youth in the surrounding community.
“Our big thing is teaching kids how to make games, because if you ask a kid if they want to make games, the answer is always yes,” Handy said. “And if you teach a kid how to program, they accidentally learn math.”
Support from industry titans, like SimCity creator Will Wright, Dolby and Google helped keep the museum going throughout the years. After the ceiling caved in at 16th and Jefferson, and with the help of another Kickstarter campaign, the MADE moved to Oakland’s Sawmill building on Broadway in 2015 and stayed there until Covid struck, leading to an inflection point for the museum.
“We were like on the verge of being 100% self-funded with admissions and memberships alone. And right then, the pandemic hit,” recalled Nguyen, then an instructor and volunteer for the museum.
An impending sale of the building at that time and an inability to come to an agreement with the landlord on rent essentially forced the MADE to move out of its space as the world descended into lockdown. In about a month’s time, dozens of volunteers squeezed MADE’s collection of 13,000 unique items into a leaky Oakland warehouse frequently beset by flooding and on the verge of demolition. Larger items were shipped off to a caretaker outside of Sacramento.
“That was pretty intense,” Nguyen remembered. “But that's the thing about being so community-oriented. That's like kind of our superpower. We end up being able to pull resources from a lot of different areas.”
Handy was convinced the MADE would return as a brick-and-mortar after Covid, but was getting burnt out as the nonprofit’s primary leader. Nguyen was less sure of the museum’s future. Eventually, Handy decided to pass the torch to Nguyen, who stepped into the director role in October 2021. The pandemic, the flooding at the warehouse and the prospect that the collection might get locked away in an inaccessible archive put the importance of saving the collection into perspective for Nguyen.
“At those moments you realize, ‘Wow, nobody's going to do this unless somebody steps up,'” he said.
And so Nguyen did.
After months of uncertainty, the MADE reopened at its current location at 921 Washington St. in June 2022 and has resumed its class offerings.
The museum is doubling down on its mission not only to preserve the history of video games but also to continue to make them playable for the digital creators of the future. During the pandemic, the MADE started bringing out its game consoles to community events, and currently, the museum is working with local high school students to set up a rotating exhibits system and area at the site.
Ultimately, Nguyen hopes that the MADE can continue to strike a balance between video game preservation and play for future generations through the power of technology.
“The dream of the MADE is that there is a way to do both," Nguyen said. "Through technology, you can actually both preserve as well as educate.”
Christina Campodonico can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org